Russia is an absolutely massive country, and one that so many people shy away from visiting due to the complicated visa process and the general “foreignness” of the language and customs. My trip to Russia was absolutely some of the best moments of my life, and definitely worth visiting! Since I only went to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Russia is so big, I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the whole country. So this is just for the “European” side of Russia (these two big cities). With that disclaimer out of the way, here you go: 20 practical tips for traveling in Russia!
1) Hang onto the white half-slip of paper they give you when you enter the country.
This little slip of paper is proof that you legally entered the country and you will need it to leave Russia. If you don’t have it, you might face real difficulties trying to exit the country. And if you’re staying in a city for 5 days or more, you will need to register with the police. This is something you accommodation will do for you, sometimes for a small fee. Make sure to get registration sorted when you arrive!
2) Carry your passport with you at all times.
Police can conduct random checks on anyone, so make sure you have your passport (and your white slip of paper, and your registration if necessary) on you at all times. I have never gotten asked for my documents, but I saw a lot of people getting their documents checked on this trip to Russia. If you don’t have your passport, the police could easily assume that you’re in the country illegally.
3) Train stations are named by their destination in big cities.
Most big cities (especially Moscow and St. Petersburg) will have multiple train stations across the city, and those stations will have their destination (or route path) in the name. For example, in St. Petersburg “Moskovskij vokzal” (Московский вокзал) is the train station for Moscow and other destinations on that train route, and “Finlandskij vokzal” (Финляндский вокзал) is the train station for trains to Finland. In Moscow, “Kazanskij vokzal” (Казанский вокзал) is the train station for trains to Kazan or on that train route. Make sure you know what train station you need to go to.
4) Rarely is (coach) bus the best form of transport.
In a lot of places in Europe (particularly in Central and Eastern Europe), coach buses are cheaper and faster than trains and are the best way to travel. This is really just not the case in Moscow and St. Petersburg (and their surroundings). These cities have huge traffic problems, especially in Moscow, and buses can very easily get clogged in traffic.
5) The Metro in Moscow and St. Petersburg is a fast, easy, and relatively cheap way to get around.
Some of the Metro stations are worth a trip just for their interior! But the Metro is fast—the longest I waited for a train was 5 minutes, and trains can come up to every 40 seconds during rush hour in Moscow. It’s cheap (55 rubles per journey in Moscow, 45 rubles per journey in St. Petersburg) and easy to navigate.
6) Marshrutka is a common (and easy) form of transport.
A lot of people (myself included) don’t think getting into a big white van (or hopping into the front seat with the driver) is necessarily the best thing to do. But the white vans are called marshrutkas and have designated bus routes—you pay the driver and let them know where you want to get off, and hop in. It’s an easy and perfectly safe way to get around.
7) Don’t drink the tap water.
In some countries, you just don’t drink the tap water. Russia is one of those places. Even if the hostel says the water is filtered, I still don’t trust it and always buy bottled water. You can get a giant 5 liter jug for less than 70 rubles (I transfer it to my water bottle for the day), so at 90p or $1.15 USD, it’s not expensive. And as my friend who studied in St. Petersburg told me, “giardia doesn’t give a shit if your hostel says the water is filtered. But you will, everywhere.”
All hail the one and only, Teremok! (In Cyrillic, Теремок.) This is a Russian fast food chain that does traditional Russian food at really low prices. The number one reason to go is for the blini (Russian pancakes), which are absolutely delicious no matter what sort of combo you go for.
9) Eat Georgian food.
Probably the best advice I could give to anyone visiting Russia: eat as much Georgian food as you can! Every place I go now, I always look up if there are any Georgian restaurants nearby. There is excellent Georgian food to be found in Russia—my favorites were Saverapi in Moscow, and Khachapuri in St. Petersburg. If you’re wondering what to eat, order a khachapuri adjuarli. It’s a bread bowl filled with cheese and butter, with a raw egg on top. You’ll thank me later.
10) Knowing a few words in Russian and learning a bit of the Cyrillic alphabet and will go a long way.
Like most foreign countries, being able to say “hello,” “excuse me,” and “thank you,” will improve your standing with locals and honestly just make it easier to have a conversation. And because Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, being able to sound out words will make your trip much easier. Studying Russian in university was so worth it just to be able to read street signs in countries around the world that use the Cyrillic alphabet.
11) A “спасибо вам” or a “большое спасибо” will also go a long way—you can crack a smile out of almost anyone.
Learning “thank you” (“спасибо” // pronounced “spasiba”) is a good start, but being able to drop a “спасибо вам” (“spasiba vam” –formal thank you) or a “большое спасибо” (“bolshoye spasiba” –literally “big thank you” or “thank you very much”) will ingratiate you with the locals. I can’t tell you how many times I struggled through a conversation and emphatically said “большое спасибо” at the end, and was rewarded with a cheeky little smile. It really does make a difference.
12) Security is a big deal, especially in Moscow.
There are security checkpoints everywhere in Moscow and Petersburg—to enter the Metro, to go into shopping malls, at nearly every tourist attraction, etc. There are also tons of police everywhere (at nearly every Metro station in central Moscow) and a huge military presence in Moscow. Russia has had a handful of really awful terrorist attacks in the past few years, so this is just the way things are. Always be patient and respectful.
13) Ladies, bring a scarf.
I carried a scarf with me every day in Russia for one reason—it’s generally more respectful for women to cover their hair in Orthodox churches. And I wouldn’t want to get refused entry to a beautiful church because I didn’t have anything to cover my hair. So I brought a scarf everywhere and it worked wonders! Remember that (for women) shorts are not appropriate for churches—if need be, you could use a big scarf as a sarong. The weather also changes frequently during the day, so a scarf helps for that too!
14) For the love of God, try to pay in as close to exact change as possible.
One of the most important tips for traveling anywhere in Eastern Europe, but especially Russia, is to always try to pay in exact change. You will get a lot of grumbles (or be turned away completely) if you don’t make an effort to pay with exact change, or change that makes sense. For example, if what I was buying cost 208 rubles and I the only note I had was a 500 ruble note, I would give a 500 ruble note and then 8 rubles in coins (or a 10 ruble coin), to make it easier for them to give me 300 rubles change. It may take a lot of fast math, but you won’t get yelled at. Also, try to be strategic about breaking big bills, since some places won’t accept them.
15) Don’t put your toilet paper in the toilet.
For sewage system reasons, most bathrooms in Russia have signs asking you not to throw your toilet paper in the toilet, and to put it in the trashcan instead. It’s a hard habit to get used to, although if you forget a few times it probably won’t cause any damage. This also means that toilets have the tendency to absolutely reek (all of that toilet paper is just sitting in a trashcan…). Also for the ladies, bring a few extra sheets of toilet paper, since you’ll want to be prepared just in case…
16) There are LOTS of underpasses in big cities.
Instead of having pedestrian crossings across the streets, in Moscow and St. Petersburg there will be lots of underpasses beneath the street for pedestrians. There are usually some kiosks or small stores—or even entire malls. This also means that walking around requires LOTS of stairs. Be prepared for this, and pack light—otherwise you will regret it with every single stair you climb.
17) Don’t eat street food.
In some countries in the world, street food is perfectly safe to eat—and even where you’ll find the best food! This is not the case in Russia—street food in general isn’t the best, and it’s not necessarily the safest option for eating. Street food can often be old or not cooked properly, so it’s better not to risk it. It’s always hard distinguishing what counts as “street food” or not—my general rule of thumb is that if it has seats inside, it’ll be safe to eat.
18) Have your laptop charged going through airports.
This is a small thing, but still something travelers should be aware of: I was asked to take my laptop out of the case and open it up twice going through the airport in Russia. This happened to me before (flying from Zambia back to the UK), but I wasn’t expecting it. Luckily my laptop was charged and I was able to prove that it was indeed a laptop—but just to be cautious, have it charged if you’re flying.
19) Be prepared for long lines in summer.
I was surprised at just how many other tourists there are in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the summer—and there are SO. MANY. TOURISTS. Be prepared for long lines at major attractions and to queue for ages. I waited 2.5 hours to get into both Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo and the Hermitage. Especially because of Russia’s 72-hour-visa-free rule for cruise ships, in the summer certain places will just be swarming with other people. Be prepared and don’t let it ruin your trip!
20) Whatever you see during your trip to Russia, you’ll never see everything.
Russia has 11 time zones, over 144 million people, and is the largest country in the world. No matter how long you’re traveling for, it is nearly impossible to see all of Russia in one trip. This is especially true if you’re only visiting the European side, like Moscow and St. Petersburg—it’s just a tiny portion of the country. Whatever you see during your trip, accept that there will always be more. And most importantly, HAVE FUN!
Have you ever been to Russia? What tips would you recommend?!